I am trying to make this the Year of Fruit in our gardens. Blueberries continue to be a trial, but come hell or high water, I intend to have some to at least eat, if not freeze, this year. If the strawberries don’t produce well, we will have to start a new row of plants next summer. And our new peach tree is now old enough to produce fruit, fingers crossed.

I’ve outlined my goals for the upcoming season here – and offered you a few practical tips for growing berries and fruit trees yourself, should you be hoping for your own Year of Fruit.

NORTHERN WILD RAISIN

It won’t be just the familiar strawberries and peaches in our garden. This year, we’re going to grow what Fedco, the Clinton-based seed cooperative, calls a northern wild raisin. First, some nomenclature: When I have written about this plant before as an alternative to the invasive burning bush, I have called it witherod viburnum; its botanical name is Viburnum cassinoides. And although the virburnum is commonly called a northern wild raisin, it is not related to grapes.

The wild raisin grows about six feet tall, has creamy white blossoms in spring to early summer and produces edible fruit that turns from green to red to purple to, finally, black in September, when it is said to be tastiest. If you get to eat any of the berries, that is. Usually, the birds get them first. My wife Nancy and I plan to taste them, just to see, but to leave most for the birds.

This plant is an experiment for us. While it is described as an understory plant, and we will be planting it in an area that includes oaks, a red maple and a struggling pine, some catalogs say it likes full sun to part shade. The location we’ve chosen may be too shady. On the other hand, the wild raisin is described as a tough, resilient native, so we hope it thrives.

We bought two bare-root plants from Fedco – buying bare-root plants is the least expensive way to get trees and shrubs from a mail-order nursery, as shipping is done by weight, and soil and pots weigh a lot. But Fedco’s ordering deadline has passed so if this plant interests you, you’ll need to go to your local nursery.

HOW TO PLANT BARE-ROOT TREES AND SHRUBS:

Bare-root trees and shrubs should be planted within 48 hours of receiving them. Fedco advises planting them even if the ground is soggy, partly frozen and/or covered by snow. When the plants arrive, their roots are covered with damp, shredded newsprint; do not let the roots dry out before planting. Don’t soak them either, though.

Dig a hole about three times as wide and just a bit deeper than the spread-out roots. Mix compost and, if you want, a mycorrhizal fungi soil additive. Stir the two together in a wheelbarrow. Place the plant in the hole and then pack the mixture from the wheelbarrow around it. Water the tree or shrub to settle the soil and be sure to leave a “saucer” around the plant. If you are planting in your lawn, use your shovel to cut out an even saucer and keep the sod away from your new tree or shrub. Newly planted shrubs will require almost daily watering throughout their first growing season. You can mulch the circle with aged bark mulch or leave bare soil – just keep the lawn mower or grass trimmer away from your new plant.

BLUEBERRIES

The 10 one-year-old blueberry bushes I planted last year looked healthy when I sprayed them with horticultural (also called dormant) oil a few weeks ago.

The bushes produced no berries last year because I carefully removed the blossoms; I was ensuring that the bushes’ energy went into the roots their first season, not fruit formation. Unfortunately, six older blueberry bushes on our property also failed to produce. I must have missed the winter-moth caterpillars last spring when I sprayed the oil, and the pest – now reported in Cape Elizabeth, South Portland, Scarborough, Harpswell, York, Peaks Island and Vinalhaven and spreading – took advantage of my lapse and ate all the flowers and early foliage.

Undaunted, we have ordered three more blueberry bushes to fill in gaps among the 10 planted last year, and we will be more vigilant this year.

HOW TO FIGHT WINTER MOTH:

It is too late now to spray hardwoods – especially oaks and blueberries – with horticultural oil, which works by smothering insect eggs. That task should have been done in March, on a day when temperatures were above freezing.

Instead, this spring as soon as leaves come out on hardwoods you want to protect, especially blueberries and oaks, take your gardening loupe (a special magnifying glass that costs about $15, and you should have one) and inspect the trees for small, green caterpillars. If you find them, spray the infected plants with Bacillus thuringiensis, commonly called Bt, a product approved for use in organic gardens to kill caterpillars. Check for the caterpillars at least every other day because breezes can carry them to your blueberries from nearby oaks and other tall trees.

Next fall, putting sticky bands on hardwoods will reduce – but not eliminate – winter moths by preventing the flightless females from climbing trees.

PEACH

Our ‘Lars Anderson’ peach tree – purchased from Fedco three years ago – should be old enough to produce fruit this year. That can’t come soon enough for us, as our crop – I use the term loosely – from our ‘Red Haven’ and ‘Reliance’ trees has not exceed three peaches a year for several years now.

The older trees are reaching the end of their useful lives. Also, we planted them too far from the house, which means the squirrels and chipmunks find the dropped ripe peaches before we do. ‘Lars Anderson’ is reported to be more prolific than both ‘Reliance’ and ‘Red Haven,’ and it is much more visible from the house. So when we see the fruit drop from the Lars Anderson, with luck we’ll be able to retrieve it ahead of the hungry rodents.

HOW TO PLANT A PEACH TREE:

If you’re thinking of planting a peach tree, know they need well-drained, neutral to slightly acidic soil, and they require full sun with good ventilation. Frigid cold weather over the winter – temperatures of 15 degrees below zero or colder – will damage the next spring’s blossoms. Once the tree starts producing, you’ll need to prune the older branches.

STRAWBERRIES

Our strawberries did not produce well last year – and I hope it was because of the drought.

Strawberry beds usually reach peak production the third year after planting. You don’t pick any the first year (let the energy go to the roots), get a small crop the second year, hit the sweet spot at year three, and then try to maintain the bed for many years after that. But production does start to decrease. Our bed was on its fifth season last year, and it should not have dropped off as quickly as it did.

To try to remedy matters, last fall Nancy and I carefully weeded the bed – it is amazing how violets camouflage themselves in strawberry leaves. This spring, I removed the mulch on the strawberries early and fertilized.

HOW TO RENOVATE A STRAWBERRY BED:

After the bed is done producing, put your lawn mower on its highest setting and mow through the bed. Then till the edges of the bed – I use our broadfork – to keep it about 30 inches wide. Weed, then fertilize.

RASPBERRIES

No major advice here. Our raspberry production has been up for the past two years because the Japanese beetle population has been down. I don’t know why, but I just hope it continues.

Tom Atwell is a freelance writer living and gardening in Cape Elizabeth. He can be contacted at 767-2297 or at: [email protected]